There are many other important elements to games, but those — especially Surprise — are the most essential ingredients to any great game. Without all of these, we are merely playing with toys, and we will find ourselves bored quickly.–Ciderhelm
Ciderhelm, Adminstrator over at Tankspot (link to the right), wrote a very intriguing article yesterday asking a very simple question: Does WoW still provide everything that one expects from a game? I encourage everyone to go ahead and read it as it provides some great perspective on where WoW really stands currently, and puts forth some very valid concerns that Blizzard should be addressing if it wishes to keep it’s industry-revolutionizing MMO at the top of the heap at least until it’s next MMO venture is ready (we think maybe within the next 10 to 45 years). Below is my take on this issue.
There is a very real difference between something that’s a Toy and a Game. A football is a toy. You can use that Toy with a group of friends and turn it into a Game, but a football on it’s own is something you pick up, toss around a bit and then set back in the garage when raid time rolls around. Specifically, a game should provide some measure of challenge and provide a reward for completing this challenge. The strategy used to complete said challenge and if any surprises crop up all go into how good or bad this game is.
Not-So Super G
Just focusing on raiding in WoW, you can easily see where a problem crops up. Are the encounters too easy(in Icecrown Citadel, specifically)? Do they provide the player with a significant amount of challenge, surprise, and reward and require some strategy? Are they just a glorified toy that we log in and play with for a few hours every week? These questions are not that easy to answer. WoW is a game that caters to an incredibly wide range of skill levels with a (relatively) low number of difficulty choices. The skill spectrum is very diverse from the number 1 raiding guild to the number 100,000. When players of all skill levels are placed in the same arena and asked to play on equal terms, you will have both a simultaneous lack of challenge at the top and an unachievable pipe dream at the bottom.
A novice skier might get themselves killed going down a black diamond slope at Seven Springs, but Lindsey Vonn would probably fall asleep on her way down the same hill. This is where WoW currently stands, in my opinion. You have 12 slopes of varying difficulty, but you have Olympic skiers and housewives fresh off the bunny hill both competing at the same time and on the same course. The housewives are mad because 5 or 6 of the slopes are way too hard and the Olmpyic athletes have done them all 20 times and are just bored.
You may say, “Borsk! The noobs can just stick to 5 mans and world events. The real hard core players should get the raids.” Well, that isn’t Blizzard’s intention anymore. They are pointing at the whole mountain and encouraging every player to go have fun on it.
Each boss in Icecrown Citadel represents, for some guild, their current maximum progression. Granted there are far fewer guilds stuck on Lady Deathwhisper than Rotface (and then by extension, The Lich King), but guilds in both areas almost certainly exist. Why do they exist? Because WoW, in its present form, can only ever be tuned to effectively challenge one section of the raiding skill band. The variety of fight mechanics available to Blizzard has been diminished, player skill at the top end has reached a new high as availability of information to players has increased, and only two distinct difficulty levels are available.
You’re left with a moderately difficult slope and a triple diamond alpine skier’s dream. Unfortunately in WoW (or fortunately), you can’t just fall over and roll down the hill to unlock the hard slope by accident.
What happens next? Ciderhelm suggests many things, among them opening hard mode difficulty immediately. I think that might solve the issue of the raiders at the high end feeling as if the content is below them, but that is only a temporary fix. Little more than gear and time holds back the guilds at the top of the raiding game. Where I think Blizzard has their attention focused is right in the middle of the curve. They look down the progression list (or whatever they use to monitor where guilds stand) and see that a lot of folks at the middle of the curve are making their way through Rotface/Festergut and onto Putricide while taking on the other non-end-wing bosses (at least for 10 man). They’re progressing through, feeling challenged, getting geared up, and seemingly having a good time doing so.
I’m surprised that they’ve been able to keep the content as fresh as they have. Some mechanics may be reused, but are often presented in an interesting enough way that you can still enjoy the fight. Valithiria, Blood Queen Lana’thel, Professor Putricide, and the Gunship Battle all employ somewhat new mechanics. Blood Queen uses all old mehanics (shadow-legion flame, reverse fatal attaction), but gives you one new goody: Essence of the Blood Queen. For a guild at the top, setting up who-bites-who and executing it immediately is really trivial and the kill speed on her Normal/Heroic modes reflects that.
Right now Blizzard should keep doing what they’re doing for this expansion. Raiding, for those of us that love the MMO format, is still incredibly enjoyable, and gives just the right balance of challenge, fun, and variety. The WoW community and social structure is still unrivaled in popular gaming, and that’s what keeps a lot of us coming back. Those looking for the hardest challenge, the most ridiculous difficulty levels have already left or never came to WoW in the first place.
I do, however, understand the concerns that have been presented, and I do think that they need to take Cider’s final suggestion: A Raiding Manhattan Project (no, not an Einstein boss that drops an Atomic Sword or something). The only way to introduce something that will surprise and befuddle even the most seasoned raider is a complete overhaul of the raid system. How can they pull this off? Well, that’s for people much smarter than me to figure out. Introducing a lot of movement, semi-3D encounters (i.e. gravity lapse), changing of the environment, interacting with the environment directly, have all been used.
It’s certainly something to ponder as Blizzard let’s loose StarCraft 2 (expected before Cataclysm) which will draw a large number of players away from the game (temporarily and permanently). Their goal needs to be reinventing raiding to attract those that haven’t experienced it, but also keep those of us that have invested large amounts of time, both in our characters and our guilds, surprised, challenged, and enthralled.
An Average Voice
Allow me to don the hat of a raider whose guild is currently plodding their way through Icecrown Citadel, having just downed Rotface on 25 man.
In response to Ciderhelm, those of us disconnected from the top of the raiding heap still find a significant amount of challenge in the raid game. Many of our current raiders started WoW at Wrath of the Lich King. The mechanics and encounters that the majority of your community talk about and refer back to, our raiders have never seen. Now, is it a valid excuse to regurgitate content just so that brand new players are happy? Certainly not, however, while some of us do put in a large amount of time into the game, there are others whom we enjoy raiding with that do not have the extra time to do so. As you addressed, it is a personal choice and not a complaint by any stretch. My point is that, for us, these encounters surprise and challenge us on a nightly basis.
Where a five year veteran sees Festergut as “just another DPS burn”, we see it as a funny fat guy that farts and makes us puke. Killing him and collecting loot is a tough prospect. We are confident that we will eventually kill the Lich King, but it will require us to get a bit more gear and practice to do so than those at the top. The game is still as fun for us now as it has ever been. Perhaps the hardcore have gotten too good, too efficient at the game. These kinds of players will always exist, so I’d say let them have their hard modes right away, and we’ll do just fine here on normal mode.
Casuals sure do whine a lot, don’t they? Just kidding. There are always two sides to the story, and I think Cider did a great job addressing both of them. There is no easy way to say whether or not WoW has become stagnant and repetitive because that’s entirely dependent on how you ask. If you ask me, I think it’s still fine, but we’ll have to wait until Cataclysm to see how radical the new systems will be. Will the new approach to stats, phasing, and greater class:race distribution have an appreciable effect on raiding? We’ll have to wait and find out.